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A dull hard sell

Dear HARVEY,

Oscar misses you -- me too! With Miramax shut out of the best picture category for the first time in 12 years, the race for the Academy Awards just isn’t the same as it was when the English patient wheezed his last breath, Shakespeare was in love and Chicago was everyone’s kind of town. To be honest, I still can’t believe “Cold Mountain” wasn’t nominated for the big gold one, especially after no less a personage than Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies program, gave the Civil War epic the righteous thumbs-up.

The Gates seal of approval was a classy touch, though it pales next to the machinations of 1999 (when you snatched best picture away from “Saving Private Ryan” with “Shakespeare”) and 2002 (when you almost beat “A Beautiful Mind” with “In the Bedroom”). By contrast, this year’s a bore. Received wisdom has it that “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” is the film to beat, though nobody I know is as excited about the epic as Entertainment Weekly, which mentioned it in practically as many articles as there are days of the month. If nothing else, the Time Warner-owned publication’s relentless flogging of sister company New Line’s hit confirms that synergy isn’t dead. It also suggests that even with you out of the big-picture race, we still live in Harveywood, a place where the hard sell matters more than the movies.

The other best proof of your winning ways is “Monster,” which Newmarket Films catapulted into a contender first by delivering a black-widow scenario that sent some critics into paroxysms of praise, then delivering Charlize Theron as a vision of supplicant femininity. Richard Avedon’s portrait of Theron in the New Yorker tucked naked cheek by jowl against David Denby’s equally dewy review was no ordinary coup -- it recalled, Harvey, your genius for straddling high culture and low. Without your example, Newmarket would have had a far tougher time selling the chattering classes on the idea that dreck like “Monster” is art and that a pinup isn’t a pinup when it’s in the same magazine as Hendrik Hertzberg. As media critic John Powers quipped, “It’s not nudity. It’s the New Yorker.”

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The sight of Theron proving her commitment to her art by shedding her clothes has been revealing -- and familiar. Like the priciest thoroughbreds in the Miramax stable (Gwyneth, Nicole, Renee), Theron knows that the only way an actress can be taken seriously these days is to drop trou. Like Theron, best actress nominees Diane Keaton, Samantha Morton and my favorite, Naomi Watts, each appear in various states of undress in their Oscar vehicles (I guess fifth nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes was deemed too young for such exposure), as does my choice for best supporting actress, Holly Hunter. I’m not sure what this means, though it’s regrettable that the only actor who let it all hang out to comparable effect last year was William H. Macy in “The Cooler,” a wonderful actor (and non-nominee) whom I never, ever want to see naked again.

Indebted to screeners

“The Cooler” is a modest film that benefited enormously from the ability of its independent distributor to bypass the short-lived screener ban. While Jack Valenti and his studio masters were betraying their contempt for critics and academy members with blanket accusations of piracy (of course, they weren’t entirely wrong), Lions Gate was fast-tracking Alec Baldwin toward a best supporting nod. Baldwin’s viperous turn in “The Cooler” gives the film weight it doesn’t otherwise earn, even if it’s not the equal of Benicio Del Toro’s deep-tissue agonies in “21 Grams.” As much as I like Baldwin in “The Cooler,” it’s hard not to wonder what the acting nominations would look like if academy members were denied access to screeners, which, with their poor resolution, erase the nuance from an actor’s face even better than a hit of Botox.

Without screeners it’s unlikely that Baldwin would have received a nomination, though only because it would have been tough getting people to watch this dank film in theaters, especially without benefit of big stars or major studio backing. Likewise, without screeners, Castle-Hughes wouldn’t have received a nomination for being, essentially, a pretty little girl with melting eyes. I remember that you lobbied for the screener ban to be rescinded, Harvey, but the irony is that a “Cold Mountain” doesn’t size down as well as a “Whale Rider,” which plays on the small screen because its cinematic ambitions are those of a made-for-television movie. Without screeners, the makers of “Whale Rider,” “The Cooler” and “Pieces of April” would have been bad-mouthing the Oscars at the Spirit Awards yesterday, not walking the red carpet.

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All of which makes me wish that you had released my favorite nominated film of the year, “Mystic River.” I find it difficult to believe that you would have let one of the most rapturously reviewed movies of the last few years fade as fast -- and as ignobly. As it stands, neither Clint Eastwood nor his film stand a chance and only Sean Penn seems to have a real shot at an award, in part because even the academy couldn’t ignore the one-two punch of “Mystic River” and “21 Grams.” I hope Penn wins not only because he deserves to but also because he might pull a Michael Moore and say something actually interesting. With you out of the running and Peter Jackson poised to mount a full-scale assault deep into the night, I need something to keep me awake.

Good luck!

Manohla Dargis


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